Family of British man detained in Iraq say Iran militias politicising smuggling case

Jim Fitton, 66, was stopped at Baghdad airport with 12 shards of old pottery in his bag and charged with antiquities smuggling

Geologist Jim Fitton, 66, was arrested last month in Baghdad after customs officials found him in possession of pottery fragments taken from an ancient site in southern Iraq. AP
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The family of a retired British geologist held in Iraq on charges of smuggling antiquities say the accusations are being politically manipulated by Iran-backed groups.

Jim Fitton, 66, was arrested last month at Baghdad International Airport after customs officials found him and a German citizen in possession of pottery fragments taken from an ancient site in southern Iraq.

Mr Fitton was charged under the country’s antiquities laws and could even face the death penalty. He is currently waiting for a date to appear in court.

It is unlikely he will receive the death penalty, officials and legal representatives familiar with the case said. But the potential for Iran-backed Shiite militias to exploit the situation to shape public opinion against the British government has raised concerns.

“It’s a very politically charged issue for us," Sam Taskar, Mr Fitton’s son-in-law, told the Associated Press. “Anybody with common sense … will understand it’s quite clearly an error.”

Mr Fitton’s family grew worried when he did not arrive on a scheduled flight back to Kuala Lumpur, where he lives with his wife, on March 20. They later learnt that Mr Fitton, a well-travelled geologist for oil and gas companies, had been taken to an airport holding cell where he is still being detained, Mr Taskar and Mr Fitton’s daughter Leila said.

The case attracted attention when, frustrated by perceived inaction on the part of the British Foreign Office to intervene and assist in Mr Fitton’s case, his family started a petition that has garnered more than 100,000 signatures.

Mr Fitton’s family previously described the response to the petition as “unbelievable” and they vowed to fight the charges.

The British diplomatic mission in Baghdad has not commented on its involvement in the case.

In total, 12 fragments of pottery and other shards were found in Mr Fitton’s possession by Iraqi authorities, all of them collected as souvenirs, Mr Fitton’s family says, during a group tourism expedition to Eridu, an ancient Mesopotamian site in what is now Dhi Qar province.

Foreign archaeologists work at archaeological sites dating back to the Sumerian era, in the ancient city of Eridu near Nassiriya. Reuters

Shortly after his arrest, Shiite militia groups published posts on social media that included his passport details and accused the British government of attempting to intervene with Iraqi judicial procedures.

In these posts, photos of Mr Fitton were accompanied by images of artefacts and sculptures, depictions the family fears will lead the Iraqi public to misinterpret the value of the shards in his possession.

Photos of the site shared by Mr Fitton on the day of the trip show a vast desert landscape scattered with debris and broken pieces of pottery and stones. The tour group was accompanied by a representative from the Culture Ministry, who did not state the items were valuable and gave them permission to take them as mementos, Mr Taskar said.

Mr Fitton’s Baghdad lawyer has already drafted a proposal under Iraqi law to have the case closed before a trial takes place but it requires the assistance of the Foreign Office to present it to the public prosecutor in Iraq.

The proposal makes an argument for Mr Fitton’s lack of criminality in the case and makes the claim that he was a victim of poor guidance.

“This is the hope,” Mr Taskar said.

If the case is not thrown out, Mr Fitton will likely stand trial. A key element of his sentencing would be to establish the value of the goods found in his possession.

As written, the law permits the death penalty for smuggling artefacts deemed valuable. Iraqi and British officials say the outcome will depend on the findings of an antiquities committee set up to study the shards.

For now, Mr Fitton’s family has no choice but to wait and hope.

“It’s tough to say the least, we are very stressed,” said daughter Leila. “My mum is keeping faith, praying a lot and we are just keeping faith.”

Updated: May 05, 2022, 5:12 PM